Progress toward a hydrogen economy and the challenges ahead were the
focus of three hearings in July. The Energy and Research Subcommittees
of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing on July 20, while
the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy and Resources and
the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy reviewed
the subject on July 27. A five-year, $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative
was announced by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address,
but numerous witnesses cautioned that the president's vision of a hydrogen
economy is far in the future, and that significant basic research is
needed to overcome a number of potential technological "showstoppers."
Subcommittee members at the July 20 hearing recognized that, as Energy
Subcommittee Ranking Member Michael Honda (D-CA) stated, "hydrogen
is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier," and more energy
is required to produce hydrogen than can be retrieved from it. Depending
on how it is produced, hydrogen fuel has the potential to eliminate
both U.S. dependence on foreign oil or gas and greenhouse gas emissions.
Members expressed disappointment, however, with estimates of the time
it would take to achieve a hydrogen economy, and pressed for faster
"Fundamental science doesn't happen overnight," responded
Douglas Faulkner, DOE's Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency
and Renewable Energy. John Heywood, Director of MIT's Sloan Automotive
Laboratory, commented that achieving a hydrogen economy would take "longer
than most people are willing to acknowledge," and estimated that
it would be 40-50 years until hydrogen as a fuel would "have a
noticeable impact." Therefore, he said, the federal government
in the meantime should also be supporting near-term incremental changes
and other alternative paths to a fossil fuel-free, greenhouse gas emission-free
energy future. Echoed by other witnesses, George Crabtree, Director
of Argonne National Laboratory's Materials Science Division, declared
that "the enormous appeal of hydrogen...is matched by an equally
enormous set of critical scientific and engineering challenges."
Faulkner testified that, based on the recommendations of two 2004 reports
by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society
the federal hydrogen initiative has been refocused in the past year
to direct more funding toward exploratory basic research. DOE's Office
of Science, he reported, recently awarded a total of $64 million over
three years to 70 new projects that would address fundamental science
issues relating to hydrogen production, delivery, storage and use.
Several of the Members have had opportunities to drive hydrogen fuel
cell cars, and wanted to know how close such technologies were to large-scale
utilization. Crabtree stated that neither of the current hydrogen storage
techniques - compressed gas and cryogenic liquid - would enable the
driving distances expected by the public. The best answer, he said,
was solid hydrogen. David Bodde, Director of Innovation and Public Policy
at Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research,
identified finding more effective means of storing hydrogen on vehicles
as "the most important long-term research challenge," and
said failure to do so "comes as near to being a complete showstopper
for a hydrogen economy as anything I can think of."
A hydrogen economy "has the potential for being the next giant
leap for mankind," Research Subcommittee Chair Bob Inglis (R-SC)
said. But when he suggested an Apollo-type commitment, Crabtree and
Mark Chernoby, DaimlerChrysler's Vice President for Advanced Vehicle
Engineering, pointed out that it was unlike the Apollo program because
it involved various players, including government and industry, could
not be driven by top-down decisions, and required acceptance by the
marketplace. Most of the witnesses stated that, in addition to supporting
basic research, the government had a role in providing incentives to
push and pull new technologies into the marketplace. Several agreed
with Chernoby when he said he did not think that "three-dollar-a-gallon
gas is gonna do it." Bodde pleaded for "consistency"
as the "chief ingredient of any effective federal policy."
Heywood warned that the success of hydrogen as a fuel was "not
guaranteed," and called for investing in alternatives such as electric
vehicles and biomass fuels with "the same sense of urgency"
as the hydrogen initiative.
Regarding the use of biomass as a fuel, particularly corn kernels,
cobs and other agricultural waste, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) raised
concerns about the effects on maintaining soil health; Heywood agreed
on the "need to understand better" the long-term environmental
impacts. Several of the witnesses suggested nuclear and renewable energy
to produce hydrogen. Crabtree said that the use of renewable energy
for splitting water to produce hydrogen was "the most appealing,"
but Heywood, in his prepared testimony, said that "electrolysis
of water with renewable electricity from solar or wind does not appear
a plausible way to produce hydrogen."
Asked what role universities could play, Crabtree said universities
and national laboratories were the best place for "the enormous
amount of basic research" that is needed, and Bodde praised universities
as "people factories" and innovation centers. Rep. Sheila
Jackson Lee (D-TX) commented that unless more U.S. students choose science
and engineering careers, she worried that "we may not have a farm
team" of physicists, chemists and engineers for the nation. Bodde
said American universities have become "a multinational enterprise"
and said "we should look again" at national security policies
that might be driving away "people we'd like to keep in this country."